Christmas in Ireland when I was young.
Growing up in a small village in South Sligo in the North West of Ireland we knew all about immigration. There was very little work to be had in the village and people had to move to larger towns and cities to find work, many people left Ireland to work in England, America, Canada and Australia.
But Christmas was a special time where I lived because all the friends and family who moved away would try to return home to celebrate this special season with those who stayed. Many would arrive just in time for Christmas Eve and the first glimpse we would get of them would be midnight mass in the parish Church.
Of course everybody would be dressed in their Sunday best or their new Christmas outfit and the Church would be packed. The choir would be in fine voice and the decorations in the Church always looked great.
I was a member of the choir and that meant that I had a birds eye view of all the congregation. I witnessed people shaking hands, hugging each other, kissing each other before mass would start and then after mass you would see smiles on all the faces leaving Church. Of course the only thing that happened on Christmas day was mass but otherwise everything was closed. Dec 25th and Good Friday are the only two days in Ireland that pubs don't open for business, so Christmas day was always full of morning excitement for the younger members of the family. Santa would have arrived sometime during the night and we would all gather round the tree and open our presents. But the Christmas dinner was what we all really waited for. The one time we would eat turkey, plum pudding and Christmas cake.
My grandmother lived with us for a time while my father was working away, and she baked pudding and cake and she always baked curny (currants) cake. It was actually a soda bread with currants in it. We could not wait to get a slice of bread while it was hot and let the home made butter melt on it.
I remember one time one of the local farmers delivered a turkey to the house, it was not plucked or cleaned out but my grandmother had no problem doing either of these jobs. Well I did not see her pluck it but I happened to walk in on her cleaning it out. I saw her wrap the innards around her hand and pull them out of the body of the turkey and believe me when I tell you, I did not feel good at all and thought I was going to be sick. But I forgot all about it the next day when it was presented to me on my Christmas plate.
The pudding would have been made a few weeks before Christmas and I remember there was 4 or 5 of them baked so that they could be given to people as gifts.
We had such great Christmas dinners where we would all sit around the table and just enjoy the food and the company.
St Stephen's Day (Dec 26th) was the day that the wren boys would come around. It is kinda like trick or treat here in the States except the kids who came to the house were expected to do something like play a tune on an instrument, sing a song, recite a poem or tell a story. If they did a good job they would get some money for their talents. But the one thing I always looked forward to was the sessions in the pubs on that night. The pubs would be packed with all the visitors to the village and many musicians would come to the village just for the tunes. We would stay out until 4 and 5 in the morning playing music when I got older, but when I was younger I would be allowed to listen to the music until about 12 midnight.
The atmosphere in the village was electric during our Christmas holidays because so many people came home for the holidays and one of the best nights was always New Years eve. Once again the pubs were packed and the music and dancing was always great. When midnight arrived we would all spill out onto the street in the village where we would wait for the marching band to come playing music, somebody would spill petrol (gas) on the middle of the road, light it and we would all follow the music from one end of the village to the other stopping to play and sing at both ends of the village. It was a tradition we had to bless the village and its people for yet another year and also to send our visitors off in good cheer, but we always felt the underlying sadness that was present that night above all nights. We knew that many of the people who had managed to come home were going the next day and we might not see them again for maybe years. The village was empty the next day, nobody in the shops and nobody in the pubs, no music, no singing, no dancing. We were all very sad. Once again we started the new year wondering how many more young people would leave for foreign soil. Little did I think that I would be one of those immigrants.
Thank God that people can come home more often now. I can be home in 6/7 hours from Kentucky to Dublin airport. I must say I am due a Christmas visit but it won't be this year.
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Until next time.